Monday, February 23, 2015

The benefit of the doubt

Manus Island detention centre, Papua New Guinea
Prime Minister Tony Abbott recently suggested that, for too long, Australians have given asylum seekers, welfare recipients and criminals 'the benefit of the doubt'. 

My latest Canberra Times column is a reply, focusing on refugees. A sample:
[N]ot even children have been given the benefit of the doubt. The Human Rights Commission recently reported ongoing abuse in detention centres, alongside self-harm and mental illness. "Every day that they are in detention," said one charity worker employed on Nauru, "they face the risk of being sexually assaulted, physically assaulted, verbally assaulted. Every day." Even if their parents were economic opportunists – and there is no evidence of this whatsoever – these children would still have committed no crimes in coming to Australia. If anyone deserved the benefit of the doubt, it would be these kids. And yet the Prime Minister feels "no guilt whatsoever" at their imprisonment. 
In this light, the Prime Minister's portrait of Australia is misleading. He suggests a kind nation, wary of being too cruel in situations of uncertainty; a nation quick to offer help and slow to make charges of criminality or ethical perversion. But Australia, for all the countless everyday kindnesses of its citizens, treats asylum seekers with contemptuous brutality. There is a bipartisan spirit of political opportunism that has deemed these foreigners 'guilty' well before the boats arrive. Benefit of the doubt? We don't even give them the benefit of international law. 
Perhaps we are being played as mugs. But not by refugees. And we're not the ones who suffer most from this game.
(Photo: "Manus Island regional processing facility 2012" by flickr: DIAC images)

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